Through his election coup Ahmadinejad has initiated a military-style government, argues Mehdi Kia
The Islamic regime in Iran has entered an irreversible turning point. In the first instance, on the morning of June 13 2009 it was fundamentally different from what existed before. At the same time the events of the last two weeks have freed the opposition from much of its illusions in the possibility of reform within the regime. The way is now open for moving toward new horizons. Let me explain.
The regime that rose out of the revolution of 1979, after the bloody suppression of any democratic content, was essentially a government by a particular section of the Shia clergy who believed in the concept of velayate faghih – put simply, the absolute rule of a supreme leader as a “just and knowledgeable religious jurist”. The mullahs who refused to accept this interpretation of Islam were marginalised and excluded from the corridors of power. The constitution of the Islamic regime gave the faghih supreme and absolute power over every decision-making apparatus of the state. The mantle of this all-powerful supreme leader was naturally taken up by ayatollah Khomeini.
It must be remembered, however, that this regime rose out of a revolution which indisputably incorporated virtually the entire population of the country. Hence a parallel structure was created where the executive president, the majles (parliament) and later the municipal councils were chosen by elections.
But the elected organs could not make any decisions that were not acceptable to the leadership. The council of guardians, a body appointed by the supreme leader, was set above them to vet all candidates for elective office, and all the laws passed by the majles. The prime role of elections was to provide legitimacy for the non-elected power structures. Hence the frantic efforts at every election to get the people out to vote.
Thus elections in Iran are not free in any accepted sense of the word, since no candidate, nor any legislation, can pass the hurdle of the unelected council of guardians that is not acceptable to the leader. But elections for such organs as the majles and the presidency had an important subsidiary role. An understanding of this role is important if we are to understand the meaning of the coup d’etat orchestrated by Ahmadinejad, in alliance with a handful of clergy.
The Shia clergy is by its very essence a fragmented entity. This arises from the concept of taqlid (emulation) – which, simply put, means that any Shia believer can follow whichever mullah that takes his or her fancy. In essence the Shia clerical establishment is not hierarchical, but multifocal. It has multiple, and potentially infinite, centres of taqlid, each with its own unique collection of followers. Add to this the complexity of adapting the laws of a religion laid down over a millennium ago to a modern industrial state, and you can see the setting for the constant splitting of the ruling ayatollahs into factions, at almost every major decision-making juncture.
Elections allowed the different factions of the clergy believing in the rule of the faqih to test out the legitimacy of their solutions, and by inference their position in the ruling hierarchy, by reverting to the popular vote. Thus the factions would fight over the popular vote and would use this to manoeuvre in the corridors of power. Hence the regime that Khomeini bestowed on the country was in no way democratic for the population of Iran, but allowed a large amount of freedom, indeed a form of internal democracy, within the ruling clergy.
Interestingly the people of Iran, deprived of any real voice in government, have used the rivalry between the factions to manoeuvre and obtain some breathing space. They did this alternatively by their vote or the boycott of that vote. One can only understand the massive turnout to elect Khatami in 1997, and the massive boycott of the majles elections in 2004 in this light.1 The same can be said of the massive turnout in the present elections. They also very astutely used the fight between various factions as a defensive shield behind which they fought for their own democratic goals.
That it was a well planned coup and not something concocted at the spur of the moment can be seen from two observations. Firstly the chorus of Revolutionary Guard commanders who congratulated Ahmadinejad on his certain victory and gave their support for it in the weeks before the election. And, second, by the fact that the official Fars News website declared victory for Ahmadinejad two hours before the polls closed, with a percentage of votes which remained unchanged until the final count.
Ahmadinejad orchestrated his previous victory four years ago like a military operation.2 This time he announced it like a victorious Caesar, even before the results of the battle could possibly be known. That was no coincidence. He was declaring to the world, and to the Iranian people, that the rule of the ayatollahs is over. The rule of the military-security machinery has begun.
What Ahmadinejad engineered, in alliance with a large section of the security apparatus and a handful of mullahs, was to essentially deprive the clergy of their ability to use elections to increase the power base of their particular factions inside the regime. This was not a flash in the pan. The election coup had been systematically organised over the last 12-15 years. It began with mobilising and the methodical winning of all electable and non-electable organs – starting with the mayorships of major cities (Ahmadinejad is an ex-mayor of Tehran), the municipal council elections, the majles and the presidency of Ahmadinejad in 2005.
In parallel the military-security apparatus became a major economic force in the country.3 The coup on June 12 was the logical next, and last, step in a long process by which those that called themselves the osulgaran (‘principled’) have been catapulted into undisputed power. The mass protest by the clergy4 can be explained by the fact that they have been unceremoniously thrown out of the power structure of Iran.
The regime that took power last week showed its fangs early. Not only did the thugs it unleashed beat up protestors, but they smashed their way into the homes of people who had given them sanctuary. They forced their way into university dormitories across the country to wreck everything in sight and indiscriminately beat the students. The arrest of politicians, journalists, students and demonstrators is taking place daily.
The overall aim of the osulgaran faction, to which Ahmadinejad belongs, is to do away with the factional nature of the Iranian regime and have a top-down, unified, military-style government with a population which supports it unequivocally and by acclamation without being allowed to organise in any form. This is to be a united country, under an undivided, single and monolithic regime, preparing for war, with an economy that reflects those aims. The unorganised ‘people’ are to be mobilised when and if necessary to act as fodder for that war.
You can glimpse this structure in the victory speech made by Ahmadinejad a few days after the election. There he dismissed and derided political parties and appealed to the people to stay on the scene to defend the country.
A capitalist regime, using extreme nationalist populist slogans, ruling the country through thugs and being acclaimed by a public not permitted to organise in any form other than what is dictated from above, and with militaristic, adventurist ambitions! Have we not seen this before?
The second consequence of the election coup is to free the Iranian people once and for all of any illusions as to the ability of the regime to reform. The final explosive demise of the election escape valve releases the people of Iran from the grip of, or hopes for, a reformist option.
They showed that understanding when they defied calls by the front runner in the election, Mir-Hossein Moussavi, to stay at home. Indeed, not for the first time we saw the spectacle of the reformists running after the people so as not to be thrown aside. Both Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi had to make an appearance in that and subsequent demonstrations, clearly desperate to regain the initiative. And at each step they have struggled to keep up with the popular anger.
The strident call of supreme leader Ali Khamenei for suppression of the demonstrations, the warning that any bloodshed would be laid at the door of the reformists and the subsequent savage attacks on street protests will further push the reformist leaders into the margins. The road is now open for the entire structure to be challenged from below.
This will be a difficult road. The reasons are not hard to discern. The regime has shown that it has no difficulty in mounting savage repression. This is an ideological regime, organised on fascist lines and fighting for its life. It has a well organised and financed body of Revolutionary Guards, as well as the voluntary bassij to do its deeds. While both of these will undoubtedly have within them large sections who are sympathetic to the popular movement, it is unwise to underestimate the power of ideology and even more the hierarchical structure of these organisations making the bassij foot-soldier far more likely to obey the orders to shoot than the conscript army of the shah.
Moreover the leaders of the regime are children of a revolution, an eight-year war with Iraq and a 30-year suppression of any popular protest. They did this efficiently in 1997, when several cities erupted; they did it again when they bloodily put down the student movement four years ago. They have been organised on a national scale with the sole purpose of keeping the population in order. They are used to repression and have had a lot of practice at imposing it.
On the other side the people are leaderless. They have been denied the right to organise in any meaningful way for over half a century, with only brief interludes of real freedom. The systematic, bloody repression of the left and all progressive forces has left its mark. Many of the exiled organisations are atrophied and are totally divorced from the country. Within Iran a new left has undoubtedly emerged, but it has yet to organise in any effective form, or even to polish its ideological understanding of the dynamics of Iranian society and the world. The working class has been in a life and death struggle with daily survival in an economy that has been in a spiral of decline.
This setting does not favour the development of working class organisations that can politically challenge the regime. Yet there are tactics that the opposition to the regime can adapt which will allow it to overcome its weakness.
In the face of certain savage oppression, and in the process of producing organisation, the struggle has to utilise tactics that take its weaknesses into account and play on its strengths. Any tactic that paralyses the regime yet puts the people out of reach of the security apparatus is more likely to succeed. Already youth on motorcycles have been using these tactics to get news of street battles to different parts, drawing the security forces into side alleys, where they become fragmented, disappearing into people’s homes when under attack, chanting “Death to the dictator” from rooftops at night, and making intelligent use of SMS, email, twitter, Facebook, etc to communicate with each other and get their message abroad.
Among other tactics that can be used are mass strikes – or, to be more accurate, stay-at-homes: ie, unofficial strikes. This keeps protestors away from the forces of repression, but paralyses the regime by depriving it of its workforce. As we go to press, there has indeed been a call for a stayaway on June 23 and for three days of mourning between June 23-25. Despite all that has been written about the Iranian revolution, it was this tactic, and not massive street demonstrations, that broke the back of the shah’s regime. Moreover, any such act of mass civil disobedience is difficult to suppress.
The organisational deficit of the protestors can be turned into an advantage by concentrating on local neighbourhood networks that will be much less easy to destroy than a central leadership. This form of organisation has the added advantage of being excellent teaching grounds for the experience of direct democracy. The highly creative use by the youth in Iran of modern means of communication allows for coordination of protest – the aim being to paralyse the state. Finally we have the age-old Iranian tactic of sanctuary – in an avowedly Islamic regime it is very difficult to attack people taking sanctuary in a mosque or shrine. Thus one can use the weakness of the regime to strengthen the opposition.
The battle will be long and bloody. Yassamine Mather has already highlighted some of the difficulties that lie ahead.5 However, we are on the slow but upward spiral to an Iran where different groups can gather and organise around their specific needs. And where we can have the kind of democracy that allows the working people of the country, those not owning the means of production, to organise towards a truly democratic socialism.
1. See Middle East Left Forum: www.iran-bulletin.org/IBMEF_1_word%206%20files/Election%20to%207th%20majles_with%20pict.htm
2. See A Mehrdad and M Kia, ‘Regime crisis and the new conservatives’ Weekly Worker September 8 2005; and Middle East Left Forum: www.iran-bulletin.org/IB-MEF-3/presidentialelections_edited.htm
3. See A Mehrdad and M Kia op cit for a detailed discussion of the rise of the neo-conservatives.
4. The majma johaniune mobarez (Association of Combatant Clerics) was one of the first organs to protest at the coup. On June 22 it published an announcement that challenged the supreme leader outright – a totally unprecedented phenomenon.
5. Yassamine Mather, ‘Death to the Islamic republic’ Weekly Worker June 18; and also on www.iran-bulletin.org